Book Review – “The Lost World of Genesis One” by John H. Walton


As someone still studying various issues related to science, the Scripture, and how to interpret them both, I have been reading books by authors on various perspectives.  One recent author who has gained some attention is John H. Walton.  He has written a few books now trying to understand Genesis in its ancient context.  The Lost World of Genesis One starts, quite literally, “In the beginning.”

The subtitle of the book is “Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate.”  Walton’s view is that we must understand the ancient context of cosmology and creation origin stories in order to better understand ancient thought on the issue of origins and creation.  By understanding the ancient mindset, we can then better understand Genesis 1 and what it is trying to say.

The layout of the book has Walton presenting 18 propositions to help us understand his arguments.  These include propositions such as “Genesis 1 Is Ancient Cosmology,” “Ancient Cosmology Is Function Oriented,” “The Cosmos Is a Temple,” and “The Seven Days of Genesis 1 Do Not Concern Material Origins.”

From here on out, please excuse any mistakes in my understanding or representation of Walton and his arguments.  The views he presents are very new to me, and I may not be understanding him perfectly.  If so, I fully accept any mistakes on my part.

I was raised understanding the Genesis creation account as explaining “how and when things were created.”  This would essentially be a material origin view.  Walton’s argument is that Genesis is not concerned with material origin (when and how things came into being).  Rather, he believes that Genesis is concerned with functional origin (why things came into being).

As a result, Walton argues that science may present one understanding of how things came about, with Scripture providing the importance of the creation.  This, of course, results in allowing science and Scripture to not be at odds with one another, unless science is saying God is not involved at all.  While Walton argues that his goal is not to defend evolution or any scientific views in particular, one cannot help but wonder if that may not be at least an underlying desire, if not explicitly discussed.  I suppose that crosses into judging motives, however, and we do have to be careful about doing that.

Walton’s central argument is that the Earth is viewed in Scripture as God’s cosmic temple, and that the creation account deals with the establishing, filling, and functioning of that temple.  It is, to say the least, a novel view compared to many I have read.  I cannot, at this point, say whether I agree with him or not, as I still have to think through many issues related to his perspective.

Perhaps the most interesting part of his book was his last proposition that public science education should be neutral regarding purpose.  It almost began to feel a little like the old “non-overlapping magisteria” arguments presented elsewhere.  Science and faith are in different fields, and the two have no contribution to each other.  I’m not sure I can fully agree with that perspective.  Primarily, I would argue that there is no such thing as total neutrality; one’s worldview will always at least partially color one’s perspective, and I’m not convinced we can escape that, although we can try to account for it and minimize it.  At the same time, his view, if adopted, could solve some issues in teaching science as a Christian in a public arena.  It would also have to apply both ways, so atheists could not push a purely materialistic view of science anymore than Christians could push a supernatural one.

Despite Walton’s claims, I think one would be hard-pressed to understand how Walton is not arguing ultimately for evolution, however.  In one proposition, he argues how other theories of Genesis and science either go too far or not far enough.  In this chapter, he argues against Young Earth Creationism, Old Earth Creationism, Literary Framework Hypothesis, and forms of the Gap Theory.  He also seems to explain that since Intelligent Design is concerned primarily with purpose, it has no place in public education of scientific ideas.   At least from my studies, I cannot figure out what would be left, short of some view of Evolutionary Creationism.

Granted, Walton would argue that I am asking the wrong question.  His emphasis is that the Genesis account is not trying to discuss science, as we think of it, since it deals with material origins.  But if all the above views are thrown out, I cannot see any view left other than the current standard evolutionary view of material origins, as far as science is concerned.

Also in his defense, Walton explains that he is concerned primarily with the best way of understanding Genesis 1, regardless of what science currently says.  As a result, his view of Genesis would not change, even if our scientific understanding of how things developed does change.  This provides some sense of solidarity on understanding Genesis that does not require one to argue that science is wrong in what it says, as the two are not even addressing the same questions.

If Walton is right regarding how to understand Genesis 1, it would be a huge relief to many, as it would allow them to let science speak on its own, and however one interprets Genesis it would have no bearing on our pursuit of scientific understanding.  I admit that is an attractive thought.  At this point, however, I am not sure if it stands up to total scrutiny yet.  I admit, I am new to both understanding science and trying to look deeper into the creation account in Genesis, so I am not able to provide an in-depth critique one way or another beyond my thoughts listed here.

I am in no way saying Walton is wrong; for all I know, he is spot on.  The view is so novel to me, however, that I am struggling to reconcile it with the interpretations I was raised with.

If you are a student of the science/religion questions, and if you like trying to see if we can “harmonize” (for lack of a better term) the two and how best to do it, then The Lost World of Genesis One (as well as the follow-up The Lost World of Adam and Eve) are great books to add to your list of books to study.

*Note: I received a complimentary copy of the book from InterVarsity Press in exchange for my honest review.